Artifacts of the Great White Way: Illuminating Gerald Champan’s Escape

Lately, I have been researching Gerald Chapman, a.k.a. Count of Gramercy Park, for a magazine article about his time in Athens, Georgia. Chapman was an insanely bold and lucky criminal, educated by the prison system and its denizens, yet he claimed a Yale pedigree. He lived the high life for nearly a year after robbing a mail truck in New York City of about $2.5 million with two associates before federal authorities finally caught up to him. Chapman landed in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, but escaped on March 27, 1923 with a different accomplice. The two fled to Athens, where a local sheriff and posse shot Chapman three times. About a week later, Chapman escaped from Athen’s St. Mary’s Hospital on April 5, 1923, this time fleeing to Muncie, Indiana, and eventually returning to his life of safecracking and strong-arming while hiding in plain sight amidst New York’s elite.

A surprising by-product of this research was the role of electricity in Chapman’s escape from both Georgia prisons, specifically, the relatively new innovation of arc lighting. During his break from the federal prison, Chapman severed the circuit for the lighting system to cover his escape. While inconclusive, the pen was likely lit up with arc lighting. By the 1900s, many prisons were either building their own arc lighting powerhouses and dynamos or contracting with outside companies to provide the energy. Arc lighting provided a wider, brighter light that wouldn’t blow out, perfect for the prison yard. By putting out the lights, Chapman created the chaos and obscurity to allow his escape into Atlanta’s suburbs.

While Chapman waited at the hospital, at least two compatriots scoped the surrounding neighborhood and met for drinks in Athens’s Palm Gardens club. At the same time, the city was preparing something called a White Way celebration. Beginning with the larger, more affluent cities, municipal governments and capitalist boosters funded arc lighting installations to create a safer city, but also to make the downtown commercial corridor more appealing and mod. Named for the “Great White Way” of Broadway in New York City, cities put on a party for the inaugural lighting, featuring beauty queens, galas, and parades. The night of Chapman’s Athens escape, the city planned to celebrate the illumination of a stretch of Clayton Street. The Palm Garden club and Georgian Hotel, both lit by their own arc lighting systems, hosted the after-party. Torrential rains postponed the White Way celebrations until the following day on April 6, but Chapman used the poor weather to cover his trail as he made his escape from the hospital. He and his crew may have originally planned to use the White Way event as a distraction to aid their escape.

photo1-3
The Georgian Hotel on Athens’s Washington Street.

Here is where archaeology comes into play. Archaeologists infrequently find spent carbon rods in urban domestic contexts, sometimes in the bottom of a privy pit, some from batteries and some from arc lighting. Arc lighting was too bright for household use, suggesting these burnt-out rods likely came from streetside lighting. As electricity jumped the gap between the electrode and rod, the rod ends became corroded and charred, eventually failing altogether. One of the main drawbacks of the system was the rods’ failure rate, which prompted the creation of a full-time job to replace them. While it is ultimately unclear how these artifacts end up in domestic privy from streetside lighting fixtures, there is some anecdotal evidence that children used the rods for games and graffiti, perhaps picking them up from the sidewalk or getting them from a friendly utility worker.

carbon rods
Spent carbon rods in the collection of Australia’s Museum Victoria. Item HA 247. Photo from Museum Victoria Collections http://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/items/1544694 Accessed 01 November 2015

Regardless of how they got there, they provide a useful way to date an archaeological deposit. Some archaeologists consult “Telling Time for Archaeologists,” an article by George Miller and several contributors in the journal Northeastern Historical Archaeology, or “Telling Time for the Electrified,” a 2010 Society for Historical Archaeology technical brief by Adrian T. Myers. These documents provide artifact date ranges by class, comprising sort of a field guide for historical artifacts. The dates for arc lighting and the carbon filament light bulb are broad however, and based, in part, on the patent date or when a technology really caught on, and any historical archaeologist will tell you that technologies like this lagged for decades between the more affluent cities and the smaller cities. Often, they were adapted first for specialized purposes, only to later trickle down to civilian use. Another way to date the use of arc lighting more specifically is to consult city gazetteers or common council minutes to find out when different parts of the city adapted its use. But, often, these resources are not scanned or searchable and are only available at the repository. These resources may also miss arc lighting projects funded and sponsored by private parties, such as group of hoteliers and restaurateurs who wanted to create a safer space for their evening promenade.

Online newspaper archives are proliferating as the resources—both technological and monetary—become more available. Just about all of these are OCR (optical character recognition) capable, which allows you to search for terms and phrases. Curious about the White Way celebrations mentioned concurrently with Chapman’s escape, I searched for “White Way” in an archive of Athens historical newspapers and received nearly 500 hits. In this particular archive, you can winnow your search by year, or add phrases like “event” or “celebration,” to limit your results to the actual festival. The results revealed clusters of articles reporting on the planning process for both the installation and the event, following the illumination of different parts of the city, including the university campus.

Athens Herald White Way May 21 1914
“Electric White Way Presented University” Athens Daily Herald 21 May 1914.

Additionally, the White Way articles provide a sense of the cultural and social impact of arc lighting that common council minutes and patent dates lack. For the White Way festival in the spring of 1923, the newspaper was filled with advertisements for local stores hoping to cash in on the event, parking deals for out-of-towners, and movie showings geared to fit in with the evening’s schedule. For years after illumination, store advertisements associated their location with the “White Way,” which tied their store to the high-class excitement typically associated with Broadway. The Lighting Journal, a contemporary trade magazine, featured an article in 1914 about the success of White Way celebrations in boosting business by forging ties between local newspapers, businesses, and municipal government. Just the enticement of this new lighting system seems to have been enough to draw a crowd to a downtown business district.

The results of arc lighting went well beyond a carbon rod in a privy. Arc lighting illumination was touted as a civilizing force, bring clean, white light to city streets in an effort to make citizens safer and, by extension, extending store hours. Luckily, today’s growing body of online newspaper archives makes it easier to provide a tighter date for privy deposits and also measure the social impact that arc lighting had on the typical American city.

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Check out this list of American cities and White Way celebrations I put together in just a few minutes. The search engine on Newspapers.com (paywalled, sorry) is great because it has an accompanying bar graph that shows the occurrences through time.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 9.26.29 AM
Screen grab from Newspaper.com of “‘white way’ celebration” in American newspapers from 1895 to 1969.

Miami, OK: October 1929

High Point, NC: March 1915

Louisville, KY: December 1911 (just in time for the holiday shopping season!)

Spanish Fork, UT: July 1933

Leavenworth, KS: May 1915

Duluth, MN: December 1918, July 1922

Orangeburg, SC: June 1921

Post-script: As of the writing of this blogpost, one of my favorite archives, NYS Historical Newspapers, has gone dark. This archive has grown rapidly thanks to generous grants from just a half-dozen rural counties along the Canadian border to include newspapers from many of New York’s 62 counties. Hopefully, they’ll be back up and running soon.

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